Hotly contested Utah gubernatorial race sparks legislation on conflict of interest, residency requirements

The bills seek to address issues that played out in real time during the race between now Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman

(File photo composite | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman faced off in a Republican primary election last year for the GOP nomination. Cox ultimately prevailed in the race, which has sparked a number of bills moving their way through the state legislative session.

Last year’s hotly contested primary contest for Utah governor has sparked a slate of bills in this year’s legislative session that seek to address everything from conflicts of interest to a candidate’s eligibility to run for office and when voters can change their party affiliation.

The issues those bills target played out in real time during the race between small-town farmer/businessman-turned-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who ultimately prevailed over former Gov. Jon Huntsman, a household name with national-level credentials.

Rep. Carl Albrecht is running a bill, for example, that would create a neutral adviser to resolve election complaints when a lieutenant governor, which by law is the chief elections officer, runs for certain state offices. Albrecht said the proposal came after hearing from constituents who were concerned about Cox’s role overseeing the election.

“I received several complaints from my constituents and other folks in rural Utah about a possible conflict of interest there with the lieutenant governor and the elections office and his office — ‘is that the fox guarding the hen house?’ type comments,” Albrecht, R-Richfield, told lawmakers during a committee hearing on the bill late last month.

Cox announced during his campaign that he would essentially recuse himself from any complaints or controversies involving the race or his candidacy, largely leaving decisions on those up to former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie, who agreed to act as a neutral third-party arbiter.

HB180, which received unanimous approval in the House earlier this month, would codify that practice, requiring the governor to appoint an independent arbiter appointed to investigate and resolve disputes involving the lieutenant governor or his or her campaign.

(Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections, said the complaints the office received about Cox had no merit but noted that there were a few instances in which the campaign was fined for filing late financial reports.)

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, expressed support for the bill but noted during committee debate that even an objective individual might not be perceived as independent or neutral, pointing out that Gov. Gary Herbert had endorsed Cox as his successor in last year’s gubernatorial race.

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News pool file photo, via AP) Then-Gov. Gary Herbert, right, and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox exchanged elbow bumps during a Capitol news conference announcing details of the transition in this Nov. 5, 2020, file photo.

Albrecht noted that he “went around the bush” several times trying to figure out who would be best to appoint the independent adviser. The treasurer, auditor and attorney general would be running for the election at the same time, so they were out, he said. And he worried that the Senate president and House speaker would be perceived as too political.

“It’s a tough one,” he said. “It really is.”

Rep. Cory Maloy also questioned why the bill would “single out the lieutenant governor,” noting that “any one of us as elected officials could be seeking different office, higher office, and have a conflict of interest while we’re still in our current roles.”

Lee, who said the office was supportive of the bill, noted that the lieutenant governor has “ultimate decision making authority when it comes to complaints.”

“So really that office is the only office that has any real direct control over the election process,” he added.

The bill is currently awaiting further consideration in the Senate.

Residency bill

A second bill moving through the Legislature seeks to address a notoriously thorny question in Utah elections — a candidate’s residency — at the beginning of an election, rather than in the heat of a race.

The bill comes after Huntsman’s opponents raised questions about whether the former ambassador to China and Russia had lost his Utah residency, which is a constitutional requirement to serve as governor, during the years he worked outside the state.

Residency is an area of Utah code that has been “a little bit of a gray area,” said Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan and the bill’s sponsor, who experienced the issue firsthand when questions arose about the residency status of one of his opponents in his race last year.

“You would think this isn’t something that actually happens very often but in this last election we had another state legislative session where someone voluntarily, even though it was after the deadline, decided they didn’t meet the residency requirements and withdrew,” he said during a committee debate of the bill earlier this month. “And even in the gubernatorial election there were allegations that one of the candidates didn’t necessarily meet the residency requirements.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman speaks during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race in this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo in Salt Lake City.

Under current Utah code, an opponent’s residency must be challenged within five days after the filing period. If a contest emerges after that point, the lieutenant governor’s office “couldn’t look into the issue” and it would have to go through the courts, Teuscher noted.

Teuscher’s bill, HB312, would lengthen the period for a challenge of residency to 10 days and allow candidates who have been away from the state for 180 days to come forward with information proving that they intended to return to the state early on in the process — something he said would keep them from facing unfounded “political slander” later on.

“They can come and say, ‘This has already been determined by the county clerk; there isn’t any reason we need to rehash this issue anymore,’” Teuscher said.

The original version of the bill would have required a candidate to disclose information about their residency early on, but an amended version says only that they “may” choose to do so.

Determining someone’s residency is a “notoriously sticky issue,” said Lee, because it often comes down to a person’s intent. Officials have looked in the past at where a person pays taxes, where the individual’s children attend school and where the person votes to determine whether they intended to return to the state, he said.

Under state law, a candidate does not lose residency if they were “employed in the service of the United States or of Utah,” a student, or engaged in religious, missionary, philanthropic or humanitarian efforts.

Aaron Starks, former vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party, spoke in favor of the bill during its committee hearing, noting that he was in the middle of a campaign against Teuscher last year when he received a call that his residency was in question after he’d spent a little over a year in Japan opening an Asia headquarters for Franklin Covey.

Starks argued that the current state law is open to interpretation enough that it provides a window for people who have “malicious intentions” to disrupt someone’s candidacy, and he called for lawmakers to approve the bill.

“It would be nice if we could clarify the language, remove some of the subjectivity so there were objective rules written so there was guidance that conveyed an accurate interpretation of this,” he said during public comment on the bill. “Because we don’t want others to be disqualified for fictitious claims in the future or have their races disrupted or momentum lost due to this.”

The bill received unanimous approval in the House on Wednesday and now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

Party affiliation changes

A third bill under consideration seeks to restrict Utahns from changing their party affiliation, after tens of thousands of voters switched their partisan registration to Republican ahead of the primary in order to cast a vote in the Republican gubernatorial contest.

HB197, also sponsored by Teuscher, would restrict voters from party-switching by delaying a change made in an even-numbered year until after the June primary.

The delay would apply to all voters, except those that are newly-registered — but its practical effect would be to lock last-minute switchers out of the Utah GOP primary, since only registered Republicans can cast a ballot in that election. Utah’s Democratic Party has “open” primaries, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

At least 105,000 Utahns changed their party registration between April 25 and the June 30 primary election last year, according to the state elections office. Around 65,000 of those voters cast ballots in the primary.

The bill received favorable passage in the House earlier this month on a 41-30 vote and now moves to the full Senate for further consideration.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said in a written statement that each of the bills “provides needed clarity for both the voters and candidates who participate in our elections.”

“It is vital that the public have confidence in our elections and that the rules are clear to all those involved in the process,” she said. “... I appreciate the Legislature’s work on these issues and will continue to work with our legislators to ensure Utahns have confidence in our elections.”

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.